Earlier today, the sun beat down on downtown Denver, with temperatures reaching as high as 100° F at their peak. The blazing heat could not stop more than 100 protestors from showing up at Skyline Park to demand better wages, protections, and respect for Denver’s janitors.
The marchers represented more than 2,400 janitors in the Denver Metro area. Today is International Justice for Janitors Day, a holiday that marks its beginnings in Denver labor organizing more than 30 years ago.
The march was planned by the Service Employees International Union Local 105, a coalition of janitorial, healthcare, airport, and security workers from across Colorado. With a reported growth of over 50% in the past five years, it is one of Colorado’s fastest-growing unions.
As businesses with vaccinated employees prepare for a return to offices, many janitors must continue to work as they have for the past year. Denver’s janitors, who are a majority Latina immigrant women, must work even harder than before to ensure offices are fully cleaned and sanitized.
Many janitors who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 have not been re-hired, so those who remain must cover more ground in less time. Some of them must even pay for their own cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.
“Now, over 2,400 janitors from across our city have a clear demand for those cleaning contractors as they go into negotiations for a fair contract: respect us, protect us, and pay us. Denver’s janitors have been called essential workers and heroes throughout the pandemic,” SEIU Local 105 writes on its website. “Now it’s time to join together, like we have done in the past, to secure the benefits, resources and pandemic pay they deserve. Now is the time to invest on the most important resource we have — the people that make our buildings run.”
The event coincides with the beginning of negotiations with over 80 Denver Metro cleaning contractors. The contracts under negotiation are renewed every four years, but as a result of the pandemic, the 2016-2020 contract was extended until 2021.
SEIU Local 105 intends to fight for better working conditions and wages, with more than $15 an hour on the table for discussion.
The atmosphere at Skyline Park was one of celebration, with refreshments, a live brass band playing rousing music, and even a face-painter for the children in attendance.
“We are sixteen months into this pandemic. That entire time, you’ve kept working, right? You’ve risked your health, you’ve risked the health of your families, and you kept coming to work,” said Ron Ruggiero, President of SEIU Local 105. “This entire time, you have been called heroes, right? … But have you been treated like heroes?”
His question was met with a resounding “No!” from the audience.
“The billionaires of this country have added 1.6 trillion dollars to their wealth. Meanwhile workers have been laid off, had their hours cut,” continued Ruggiero. “We are going to demand that you be treated like heroes. We are going to demand that you be treated like essential workers. … We are going to demand that janitors get a share of the wealth that you create in this city every single day.”
At noon, the protestors took off down 18th Street to triumphant fanfare from the band. They stopped in the shadows of several towering buildings, each one cleaned and sanitized by SEIU Local 105’s janitors.
Among those calling for better treatment was Charmayne Philips, who has been a care worker for over 25 years. Like many industry workers, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year threw her life into disarray.
“I picked up a second job as a janitor, just to make ends meet. Between two frontline jobs, I worked seven days a week. By the end of the day I was too tired for my own family,” Philips told the crowd. “But because the industry we work in doesn’t pay a decent wage, I still found myself homeless at a time. There were times I had to sleep in my car. It was very stressful. I’m not the only one. The problem is across our industry, and that’s why we’re here today.
“Whether we are Black, Latino, white, Asian, or anything else, at the end of the day we all share common struggles as working people,” said Philips. “We all want to provide a good future for our families.”
Marisol Santos, a leader of the rally, echoed Philips’ sentiments.
“I’ve been a janitor in Denver for over 14 years,” Santos said. “These issues aren’t new for us. We’ve always deserved respect, better protections, and a livable wage for our work, but the past year has been like no other. My family’s lives were put at risk every day. We’ve been called heroes, and it’s time we’re treated like it.”